Wii: Making sports games fun again

I haven’t really enjoyed sports video games for a few years now. Part of it is my continuing frustration with the $50 football game that’s nearly identical to the previous year’s game. Part of it is that I don’t care about fantasy modes and being able to be the head coach or GM and tell my players how to practice and what film to watch. If I wanted to play an RPG, I’d have bought Final Fantasy or something.

But mostly I just don’t find them much fun anymore, for different reasons depending on the sport. For basketball and football games, they’ve gotten more tedious as they’ve become more realistic. It’s boring to set up the offense in a basketball game and work the ball around and post up and all that. I had more fun with NBA Jam. For baseball and golf, the various power meters to swing and pitch have made the games seem completely divorced from the sport. Hitting a solid drive is a matter of pressing the button several times at the right time, or of rotating the analog stick just right. It feels like a timing-based video game task, not like a fun sports game. (I don’t find soccer games, especially Winning Eleven, nearly as tedious as the others, but maybe that’s because the sport itself is much more continuous.)

The Wii gives me hope that sports games can be fun again.

I haven’t played Madden for the Wii yet, but the pack-in game Wii Sports already shows the potential for using the motion-sensing controller to feel like you’re actually playing the sport. In the golf game, there’s a power meter just like in all other golf games. But instead of pressing a button or twirling a joystick, you have to swing with just the right amount of power. I was playing with the GF the other day, and before each shot we’d keep doing practice swings to get it just right — just like real golfers! It felt like when you’re actually playing and you try to imprint the muscle memory of the perfect practice swing into your brain so you swing exactly the same way when you step up to the tee.

Same with the bowling game. When I got a strike I would try to repeat the exact same movement the next frame — again, like a real bowler who spends hours and hours teaching their body how to step and release and spin just so. So it feels like you’re playing the sports on a basic level because you’re “swinging” the tennis racket and “bowling” with the controller, but it’s a much more sophisticated kind of immersion than that.

Wii boxing and baseball aren’t as good as tennis, which isn’t as good as golf and bowling. Boxing is the weakest at sensing your motions — it’ll punch when you do, but it’s hard to punch where and how you want to. And baseball is the most limited; it’s just a home run derby game with basic pitching and no fielding or running. But the potential is there, and it’s exciting. I’ve been waiting for a sports game renaissance, and the Wii could be it.

— December 4, 2006

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